Updated at: 03-01-2022 - By: Jane Brody

In the spring of 2020, the topic of racial disparity in the United States has received more attention than at any other time in recent memory. Millions of people were forced to examine the stark differences between the lives of whites and those of people of color in the United States after the murder of George Floyd.

The coronavirus epidemic, which has disproportionately affected people of color in the United States, has heightened awareness of police violence. To focus on public health data in aggregate can disguise how health problems are not evenly dispersed across society, this sad truth serves as a reminder.

Socioeconomic and racial minority groups often have higher rates of disease and disability than those who are more advantaged in other ways. Health disparities refer to the differences in the effects of various factors on different populations.

A growing body of research suggests that sleep disorders are a major cause of health inequalities among people of different races and ethnicities. The increased prevalence of the cardiovascular disease among persons of color may be explained in part by the fact that sleep deprivation is so important to general health.

There is still a lot to learn about racial and ethnic discrepancies in sleep research, which is a burgeoning subject. In this guide, you’ll find an overview of current research on the magnitude, causes, and consequences of disproportionate burdens of sleep issues in the United States.

Discussing Race and Ethnicity in Public Health

Race and ethnicity are difficult to define, according to experts in both the scientific and social sciences. They cannot be characterized biologically, despite claims to the contrary in historical writings Race and ethnicity, according to most contemporary ideas, are socially produced and must be understood in a broader cultural context.

As the director of the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), Dr. Eliseo J. Pérez-Stable, points out, “the effects of these social constructs are genuine” and may be seen in a variety of health outcomes.

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Researchers commonly use broad categories of race and ethnicity, such as those provided in the United States Census, to better discover health inequalities. In spite of their flaws, these classifications have provided a starting point for exploring the disparities in sleep and other health issues.

Future studies in this area should consider the concept of intersectionality, which recognizes that the effects of inequality might differ for people based on a variety of criteria, not only race or ethnicity. It is possible to gain a better knowledge of health disparities and possible solutions by using a multidisciplinary approach.

How Is Sleep Different Among Racial and Ethnic Groups?

Overall statistics show that sleep issues are a serious problem in the United States of America. Approximately 30 percent of adults are thought to suffer from insomnia, and an even greater number of those suffer from the occasional sleep deprivation of fewer than seven hours.

Despite the fact that sleep disorders can affect persons of any race or ethnicity, researchers who have begun to delve deeper into this vast body of data have found that they have a disproportionate effect on people of color.

Sleeping Problems in Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups

It’s difficult to get accurate information about how much sleep people get. Even if it’s not completely correct, self-reported levels of sleep quantity and quality provide a significant amount of data.

The National Sleep Foundation’s Sleep in America Poll, for example, collects data on sleep habits in the United States. Among ethnic and racial groupings, black respondents reported the least amount of sleep on weekdays, according to a 2010 poll.

Short sleep duration is more common among African-Americans than among other populations, according to recent health survey surveys.

It has been discovered that among African-Americans, particularly young individuals, sleep apnea, a breathing problem with substantial health implications, is both more common and more severe.

The black population has also been found to have higher rates of extended sleep, which is defined as sleeping for more than nine hours every night. Long sleep has been linked to an increased risk of death, much like a short sleep.

Hispanics and Latinos are also more likely to suffer from sleep disorders, according to a recent study. Hispanics and Latinos, like blacks, have higher rates of poor sleep quality, short sleep, and lengthy sleep compared to whites.

Native Americans and Alaska Natives, Asians, and Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders all appear to bear a disproportionate share of the burden of sleep disorders. Due to a lack of comprehensive studies, it’s difficult to draw definitive conclusions about sleep disturbances in these populations.

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What Are Potential Causes of Health Disparities in Sleep?

As there are so many variables that might affect sleep, it’s impossible to say for sure what causes racial and ethnic disparities in sleep in the United States. People who sleep in controlled circumstances (like sleep labs) don’t show the same sleep inequalities, which suggests that social, economic, and cultural factors play a significant role.

People of color are more likely to suffer from sleep disorders than their white counterparts, according to researchers who study health inequalities. Higher levels of physical and emotional stress are a common thread throughout many of these issues.

The “on alert” state of hyperarousal that is induced by stress has been revealed to be a primary driver of insomnia by altering several systems in the body.

Sleep-related health disparities have been linked to a number of factors by researchers, including:

  • Shift Work: More people of colorwork night shifts, irregular or extended hours, which might disrupt sleep patterns and the ability of the circadian rhythm to synchronize with the local day-night cycle.
  • Occupational Hazards: Discrimination in the workplace causes a lot of stress for persons of color, as many of them say. In addition, people of color are more likely to work in jobs with an increased risk of injury or exposure to allergens or irritants that may raise their risk of sleep apnea.
  • Racial Discrimination: It is important to note that the issue of police brutality is just one example of how racism may have a long-term impact on a person’s health. Many people of color have anxiety and insomnia as a result of their experiences of racial discrimination and other forms of oppression.
  • Financial Stress: Black and Hispanic people are more likely to be unemployed or poor, which puts them under more stress on a daily basis.
  • Neighborhood Environment: Pollution, noise, allergens, and other stresses and causes to sleep apnea may be more prevalent in neighborhoods with more people of race.
  • Acculturation: Anxiety and stress related to the transition to the mainstream culture in the United States can affect the quality of sleep for ethnic groups, particularly those with large immigrant populations.
  • Unequal Access to and Quality of Medical Care: People of color’s health outcomes are significantly impacted by health disparities. There are a number of reasons why people may not seek treatment for sleep apnea and other sleep disorders, such as a lack of awareness.

As a result of these issues, persons of color have higher rates of obesity and diabetes than the general population. In persons of race, these illnesses may have a bidirectional link to sleep disorders and increase the risk of health complications.

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Happy couple sleeping in bed together at home in the bedroom

Why Do Racial and Ethnic Sleep Disparities Matter?

A good night’s sleep is essential to the well-being of your body and mind in every way. It has a direct influence on practically every system of the body, promoting physical health and recuperation. A good night’s sleep is essential for cognitive functions like attention, memory, and attentiveness. Emotional well-being is aided by a good night’s sleep as well.

Experts examining health disparities have identified inadequate sleep as a possible contributor to the disparity in health outcomes seen by minority populations. For example, people of a race who have higher rates of sleep apnea may have a greater risk of cardiovascular disease.

A deeper understanding of how sleep and other health disparities affect people of color can help public health officials build more effective programs to address these issues. Efforts to eliminate inequities in the health care system may benefit from focusing on improving sleep as a strategy.

Reducing health disparities necessitates a concerted effort to better understand their occurrence, causes, and consequences in order to devise a targeted response.

In order to better understand sleep-related health disparities, researchers must collect both more and better data. To provide more complete data, researchers should take an intersectional approach and account for the fact that many people describe their sleep patterns incorrectly, with the degree of error varying across racial and ethnic groups.

There is a need for more accurate data, but it is not enough. Many accepted insomnia therapies are based on studies that only involved a small number of people of color. CBT-I or sleep hygiene instruction may need to be customized to better suit the needs of patients who are from racial or ethnic minorities in order to be more effective. There are no effective treatments for these people unless the research trials are well structured to include a wide range of participants. Cardiovascular health may be improved if measures to enhance sleep are successful.

Greater focus on issues like health care access, police brutality, environmental justice, and racial injustice, as well as equal access to education and employment, will be critical in addressing the root causes of sleep disparities among different ethnic and racial groups.

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